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As 2020 Approaches, Some Experienced Election Officials Head To The Exits

A voter casts a ballot in Louisville, Ky., this month. Long-serving election officials around the country are retiring ahead of the 2020 election, which could be among the most challenging to administer in the country's history.
John Sommers II
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A voter casts a ballot in Louisville, Ky., this month. Long-serving election officials around the country are retiring ahead of the 2020 election, which could be among the most challenging to administer in the country's history.

Between possible foreign interference, potentially record-high turnout, new voting equipment in many parts of the country and what could be a razor-close outcome, the 2020 election was already shaping up to be one of the most challenging elections to administer in U.S. history.

On top of those challenges, a number of top election officials who oversaw voting in 2016 won't be around next year. Some are retiring after long careers, but others are feeling the strain of an increasingly demanding and politicized job.

Among those who have left are former Virginia Election Commissioner Edgardo Cortés, now an election security adviser with the Brennan Center for Justice. He decided to move on last year when the governor he worked for was heading out of office. Cortés also had a new baby on the way and a three-hour commute, and says he needed a break from his 24/7 job.

"In Virginia in particular, there are elections going on every year, multiple times a year, so it was definitely a huge time commitment," says Cortés.

Running elections can be difficult work, with long hours, low pay and an electorate that isn't always appreciative. Most officials say they love the work and believe they're performing a key democratic function, but several high-profile election officials have recently announced that they're leaving, in part to give their replacements time to prepare for 2020.

The longtime election directors for Delaware and Minnesota retired earlier this year, while Chicago's head of elections plans to retire after next March's primary. This month, Michigan election director Sally Williams said that she, too, is leaving after 34 years working in the field.

In an email to NPR, Williams said that she was too busy to talk but that she is retiring, in part, to slow down and "enjoy life."

Not everyone who's departing is retiring. Nikki Suchanic announced a few days after the Nov. 5 elections that she's resigning at the end of this year from her job running elections in York County, Pa.

"With the stress and the constant pressure of the job, I just want to put more of my energy into my family versus my career at this point in my life and I think I'm just ready to move to a career that's maybe not so much under the spotlight or the microscope," she says.

Suchanic says she was thinking about leaving for the past few years and that her decision has nothing to do with problems that emerged with new voting equipment used in her county for this year's elections.

More pressure, more scrutiny

But the controversy probably didn't help. Election officials around the country say their jobs have become increasingly complex and that they're under pressure to do more and more with limited resources, even as public scrutiny intensifies.

"Quite frankly, elections officials are exhausted," says Joe Holland, registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County, Calif., and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Holland says running elections used to be pretty routine, but each year has brought new demands — everything from upgrading voting equipment, to expanding absentee and early voting, to modernizing voter rolls, to guarding against ransomware and Russian hackers.

"Any one of these things is maybe not all that significant, but when you heap them all on top of each other, it just is approaching overwhelming," he says.

Especially when resources and salaries in many election offices remain relatively low. A recent survey found that local election officials, who tend to be older women, are paid an average of about $50,000 a year — more like someone doing clerical work, rather than running an important government office.

Declining public trust

Mary Bedard, who oversees the 19-person election staff in Kern County, Calif., thinks that's one reason she has had trouble retaining entry-level workers and replacing four of her top longtime staffers, who are all retiring this year.

"It's hard to get people with elections experience if they don't come up within your own ranks. You know you have to try to steal them from another county and so many of the other counties in fact are having retirements and turnovers," she says.

Bedard was able to get the county to raise salaries to be more competitive, which definitely helped. But she's also concerned about the impact of the nation's growing polarization over the voting process.

"In 2016, we would get phone calls coming in, just from the public, accusing us of rigging the election or things like that," she says. Her office received more calls last year accusing them of not caring about the voters or wanting to ensure that every ballot was counted.

"And that really did hurt these people who've dedicated 25 to 30 years of their lives doing this, and of course they care about the voters and counting every eligible vote," she says. "I mean these people really love elections. They wouldn't have stayed here this long if they didn't."

Holland, the Santa Barbara registrar, also worries about the long-term impact of a decline in public trust. He fears it could lead to even more departures, which in turn might mean more problems at the polls, as those with the most experience leave.

"Elections are about confidence," he says. "And if you begin to make mistakes, you erode that confidence."

Mitchell Brown of Auburn University, who trains local election officials around the country and has written extensively on election administration, isn't too worried. She thinks those who run the nation's elections are extremely resilient and will rise to the challenge.

"I've never met an election official who didn't want to do a good job," says Brown, who doesn't believe there's more turnover in the field than usual, although no one know for sure.

There are 8,000 election offices around the country — ranging from one-person shops to large agencies with hundreds of employees — and no one keeps tabs on all of them.

Brown says some turnover is understandable, as the job of running elections becomes more specialized, with more attention now on technology, cybersecurity and election law.

"You see more people with JDs, with master's degrees, occasionally a Ph.D., getting into this type of work, and so the field itself is slowly professionalizing," she says.

She adds that this change brings its own challenges. Such experts are more inclined to switch jobs, looking for higher pay and more opportunity. Brown says that if the country wants good elections, it should be prepared to pay a little more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.